Anne Hartman 2014-02-11 11:11:57
The eerie quiet in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood would’ve been odd any other day, but on this particular Wednesday, it was expected: Hurricane Sandy’s forceful winds and rain brought massive damage to the area two days before, on October 29, 2012. Roddy Schrock waded through ankle-deep water and snapped pictures of the destruction outside the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, where he works as the director of programs and residencies. He knew what came next—surveying the damage to the facility—would take a hard toll. Eyebeam is located in Zone A, an area hit especially hard by Sandy. Schrock expected damage to the building, but never fathomed the magnitude of destruction he would uncover. The space—and much of its archives—was flooded with three feet of a toxic mixture of saltwater, sewage, and other contaminants. Some precautions Had been taken before the storm, such as covering the workspaces with plastic and raising equipment and materials a couple feet off the ground, but these efforts weren’t enough. Eyebeam lost more than $250,000 worth of equipment, and much of the center’s archives was severely damaged. Founded in 1997, Eyebeam is a nonprofit center that exposes audiences to new technologies and media arts. Since its start, it has supported about 245 fellowships and residencies for artists and creative technologists. Its archives is comprised of artworks, documentation of events, server backups, and informal artist conversations, chronicling the majority of the work that has come out of Eyebeam during its fifteen years of existence. Stored on media formats like DVDs, hard drives, and VHS tapes, about 1,300 items in the archives were at risk of being corrupted by the salt content and toxicity of the water that had poured into the building. An Army of Volunteers What happened next, Schrock says, was immediate and organic. The center put the word out that the archives was at risk, tweeting, “Eyebeam suffered significant water damage (water up to 3 ft high), cleaning out the space and salvaging valuables and works this week. Need volunteers to help save archive, all formats (VHS, CD, Mini-Disc, etc).” The call worked, and Eyebeam mobilized an army of volunteers, including students from the New York University Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program and conservators from the Museum of Modern Art, Rhizome, and Heritage Preservation. Kara Van Malssen and Chris Lacinak, media conservation professionals from AudioVisual Media Preservation Solutions, And Anthology Film Archive’s Erik Piil took the lead in organizing the recovery effort. They gathered supplies (a taxing effort itself in post-Sandy New York City), including gloves, masks, microfiber towels, headlamps, isopropyl alcohol, and plastic bins, and kicked off the recovery process. Lacinak and Piil created media-specific cleaning plans for optimal discs, computer discs, and cassettes, documenting each process on large flip-charts. Once items were cleaned, they were taken to a designated drying room and left to dry on tables lined with brown craft paper. Each item was labeled on the paper to ensure it dried for forty-eight hours and so associated items—such as label inserts and cases— were reunited with the media item once drying was complete. With the help of forty volunteers, the cleaning was completed in three days. Sandy’s Silver Linings Though the storm brought much devastation to the center, it also brought unexpected hard-earned lessons. Before Sandy, Eyebeam had no catalog or inventory of the holdings; there was little volunteers could do to prioritize items that needed immediate attention during cleaning. In the weeks After the cleaning, volunteers created an inventory of the 1,300 items that were cleaned plus an additional 600 items that were not damaged by the floodwaters. Using a Google Spreadsheet, the inventory helped to prioritize items to digitize. Digitization had long been delayed due to lack of funding, but the center has reignited its efforts to digitize the collection after Sandy and is seeking funding to begin the process later this year. Another hard-earned lesson for Eyebeam: Before Sandy, it was heavily focused On being at the cutting edge of art and technology. The storm helped the center embrace its past. “This storm forced us to…constructively and critically examine our approach to archiving the work that is developed here,” Schrock wrote in a blog post. “Technological art is a very future-focused endeavor, sometimes to the detriment of retaining its history. But as this organization matures, as this field matures, it becomes more and more apparent that creating the future also means tending to the past.” Hurricane Sandy Recovery Grants Eyebeam Art + Technology Center received several contributions to aid in its recovery process, including a $2,000 grant from SAA Foundation’s National Disaster Recovery Fund for Archives (NDRFA), which provides grants to support recovery of archival collections from major disasters, regardless of region or repository type. In addition to Eyebeam, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, Printed Matter, and the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey received NDRFA grants to aid in Hurricane Sandy Recovery.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.